Nudging Innovation in Increments
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- Mar 25, 2020 2:33 pm GMT
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Although the electric utility industry relies on an assortment of technology, we also aim to minimize risk. Our focuses on safety and reliability mean we often shy away from wide-scale deployment of technology or changing our processes without careful vetting, testing, and confidence.
But that doesn’t mean we aren’t innovating.
Merriam-Webster defines “innovation” in two parts: 1. a new idea, method, or device; and 2. the introduction of something new.
When we think about innovation in the utility industry, we are often focused on the second part – the application of new ideas and technology.
There is sometimes the perception that because many public power utilities are smaller than our privately-owned counterparts we lag behind or are constrained from being able to innovate. Through my experience working directly with our members on their research and development initiatives over the past two decades, I can testify that isn’t true.
It might be harder to notice, though, as our approach to innovation is incremental. And we don't have substantial promotional budgets.
Throughout the 1970s, APPA had a member-supported research fund in collaboration with the Electric Power Research Institute. As the decade went on, public power utilities found they lacked financial resources to participate in more expensive, long-term research.
Our board of directors at the time began to consider how a distinct public power entity might help shape the direction and development of emerging energy technology. The association contemplated how to balance the necessity of and need for investment in electric power research with the desire for practical, near-term solutions to the problems of the day and the relatively limited resources of most public power utilities.
The board decided that “the long-term strength of public power demands a firm commitment to research, development and demonstration.” Beginning in 1980, the Demonstration of Energy & Efficiency Developments (DEED) program was established to spur research and development within public power.
DEED’s success emanates from a simple philosophy—that by sharing resources, public power utilities can reap much greater rewards. The program focuses on funding near-term applications of a variety of high-interest research projects so that public power utilities can pick up from where a project ends – and either keep exploring or put the innovation into practice.
Over the past 40 years, the program has supported approximately 800 projects, including more than 260 scholarships for students to research an innovation or help a utility tackle a project through an internship.
In sum, DEED has provided more than $17,000,000 in support for public power to test out innovations and share their ideas with their peers. The funding for an individual project isn’t always substantial – while grants are currently for up to $125,000 per project, many have been funded for a few thousand dollars.
These small steps have added up to big changes.
- An early project led to the development of PowerWorld Simulator, a software now widely used by the industry, and has since been a tool used in further project explorations, including a project on system vulnerability during geomagnetic disturbances.
- Grants supporting a centralized mechanism for tracking outages led to the development of our eReliability Tracker, a one-of-its kind way for cross-utility benchmarking of reliability metrics.
- More than 20 projects, starting in the early 1990s, have built off how public power understands and support electric vehicle adoption, from the feasibility of converting municipal vehicles to electric to collecting and analyzing data on load management from EV charging and exploring vehicle to grid integration and using blockchain to manage charging from renewable sources.
- Multiple projects have created and subsequently updated safety training videos, which has enhanced safety for public power workers by making training and understanding standards more accessible.
We’ve seen projects evolve from learning about the deployment of smaller-scale solar photovoltaics to exploring how floating arrays can work and analyzing what makes community solar programs most effective for low to moderate-income customers. And true to the community-oriented spirit of public power, funded programs have included many focused on community enrichment and education as well – including a handbook for elementary school teachers on renewable energy and programs and curricula to teach the general public about conservation.
Through DEED, public power utilities have helped each other to be in front of testing the latest technology innovations – with more recent projects focused on deploying drones or using blockchain for demand response.
In 1995, when we observed DEED’s 15th anniversary, APPA’s executive director at the time, Larry Hobart, who helped establish the program, remarked that “the public sector has a special obligation to meet the interests of consumers by promoting innovation and efficiencies to improve service.”
Over time, DEED has helped public power to meet this obligation and continues to make both small steps and great strides in pushing the electric utility industry forward.